June 5, 2018
When settling in for a night at the movies, it is easy to take for granted how that movie actually got to the theater you’re sitting in. That’s where distribution companies come in; they help ensure films get to the right screens and right audiences. This process is relatively easy for Hollywood projects, but for indies it can be hard to get traction. That is a problem Questar Entertainment’s Director of Acquisitions, Josh da Silva, is trying to fix.
Video distribution company Questar Entertainment was founded in 1978 by DePaul graduate Albert J. Nader. The company’s library, according to its website, contains over “5,000 titles covering a broad range of family-friendly subjects” with its main focuses being travel videos and faith-based content. Da Silva, who is also a DePaul graduate, was looking for a way to expand on the company’s repertoire but didn’t want to sully their “family-friendly” brand. So he created a new imprint, Cow Lamp Films, to distribute locally-made independent films.
“I just started finding more people who had what I’d call ‘films on the shelf.’ They had these beautiful films that never got any sort of distribution,” da Silva said. “We had an idea of maybe just doing documentaries, but we realized there was so much more. So, we just made a sub-division.”
Da Silva had an interest in filmmaking for a long time, and it grew as he worked on his thesis film at DePaul. He started working at Questar in November 2016, where he began learning the ins and outs of film distribution. Forming Cow Lamp was a way to bring his twin interests in the indie film scene and the film distribution world together.
When looking for films to distribute, da Silva pitches to online services like Amazon, Netflix and Hulu. Since these companies often want to buy a package of films as opposed to just one, da Silva began putting collections together.
It isn’t always easy. One of the first things da Silva looks for in a film is technical soundness. He said they’ve had to say no to “a lot of films whose productions values where really sub-par.” He’s seen it all: bad audio, bad video and sometimes even productions with“home video” qualities. Outside of a potential negative viewing experience, films with poor production values also risk not making it past the quality control mechanisms of the various digital platforms.
The next big factors in choosing a film for Cow Lamp are genre, which actors are in the film, who made it and what festivals it was in.
Da Silva acknowledges that he likely won’t be picking up an indie film with Dwayne Johnson any time soon, but there a number of other stars who go for smaller films – and their names on a production can almost function as a stamp of approval in themselves. Cow Lamp has 17 films right now with names like Burt Young (of the “Rocky” series) and John Ennis (of “Mr. Show with Bob and David”). If the film doesn’t have a recognizable name, then the other factors become more important. It’s a sort of balancing act.
“All those are quantitative factors that will affect if it is sold, if it’s picked up, where it’s picked up, how it’s picked up and what kind of revenue we can generate from it,” da Silva said.
Once films are picked up, Cow Lamp puts together a press kit and begins pitching to online distributors. And recently, the company announced they are planning to release some of their films in theaters. Questar Entertainment’s president Jon Plowman said they have found a selection of independent theaters across the country that need content.
“It’s been a grassroots effort. We’ve had a team that has been identifying these theaters online and through word of mouth, and we contact these individual theaters directly,” Plowman said.
Some of the theaters are part of small chains of 12 or so theaters, and many of them haven’t been able to get the equipment necessary to show films the way Hollywood distributes them. This is because new theater systems – speakers, screens, etc. – can get expensive quickly. Since Hollywood distributes on such a wide scale, they can’t individualize for a particular theater’s needs, and that’s where Questar aims to step in with Cow Lamp.
“It’s about $100,000 worth of equipment that theaters were required to change to just in the past five years. … A lot of these smaller theaters couldn’t afford to do that, so they no longer have access to Hollywood content,” said Plowman. “They’re starving for content. They still have people in these small towns that want to go to the theater. So there’s really a need there, and that is what we are filling with our Cow Lamp films.”